Ask any historian about the ‘phoney war’ and they’ll tell you about a period after the declaration of WW2 when neither side seemed particularly keen to get involved in the messy business of actually fighting each other.
From the British side, this was largely a case of waiting to see what the aggressors were going to do. As they’d started it all, the expectation was that they would come out with all guns blazing. Yet little happened for around 8 months.
There’s a certain historical echo in the behaviour of the Conservatives right now. Having called an election that hardly anyone wanted or expected, Theresa May was supposed to be the one telling us what the grand plan was. As the only one with any real warning about the coming conflict – albeit for only as long as it took her to take a walk in some woods – it was predicted that she’d be the first out of the starting blocks, hitting us with all manner of innovative policies and clever campaigning moves.
But what have we seen so far?
Firstly the PR people at Tory HQ, apparently buoyed by the notion that people had swallowed any old crap in the referendum campaigns, decided to torture us with a slogan even more annoying than watching James Cordon repeatedly slide into a parking space for some product that nobody really wants or remembers.
Initially sounding like some kind of agricultural building specification, the mantra ‘strong and stable’ pretty quickly backfired on May to the extent that she must now be unable to say those words even in normal conversation. Still I guess at least it’s killed off their previous political earworm – ‘long term economic plan’ so perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies.
There has followed a series of carefully vetted and choreographed fake hustings with hand-picked supporters that make David Cameron’s legendary aircraft hanger meeting, featuring a couple of dozen extras in a closely cropped photograph, look like a Nuremberg rally.
As we’ve seen on numerous occasions May’s debating skills in the chamber amount to little more than a list of desperately pithy one-liners shoe-horned into a pre-prepared script, so it was little wonder that she refused to debate Corbyn on TV, preferring, she claimed, to be out and about talking to the people.
Oddly enough this memo seemed not to reach some of the places our glorious leader has recently graced with her presence, including a tin shack somewhere in the wilds of Scotland with less communications connectivity than the dark side of the moon. Then yesterday in Cornwall, local reporters were locked in a room away from the PM during her visit to a local business, allowed to ask only 2 questions each, and told they were not allowed to film her May-ness except from the other side of the car park.
Her campaign – if you can call it that – seems based on the idea that the only thing she has to do to win on June 8th is not to be caught actually saying anything tangible between now and then. Her 22 minute interview with Andrew Marr was a masterclass in obfuscation and waffle. Not a single straight answer to a straight question. Not an unusual phenomenon from a politician I know, but Theresa seemed to take the old adage about knowing when a politician is lying by seeing their lips move to a new level. Her lips may have been moving, but all we heard was a series of grinding noises as her brain desperately tried to find the right gear.
And amidst all this fluff and nonsense, have we heard any actual policies from Mrs May and her compatriots? Not that you’d notice. Outside of ‘that’ slogan and the belief that the election is somehow going to imbue her with magic Brexit powers, we’ve seen precious little, other than some enigmatic eyebrow raising and her claim that the Tory manifesto will be the answer to everything.
Aside from that, her campaigning platform, and the principal reason she’s putting us all through this charade, is that of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, May claims to be a strong and capable leader who’ll defeat the dragons in Brussels. Presumably she’ll be doing this from under the desk with her fingers in her ears.
Wasting what little time there is in the 2 year Brexit process by triggering Article 50 just before the German and French elections was a stupid enough move in itself, driven as it was by the PM’s abject fear of losing the position she lucked into after the meltdown of her own party last year. But adding a further delay to proceedings by calling another one in her own backyard is beyond batshit. If that’s what she calls ‘stability’ I’d love to hear her definition of chaos.
Her main premise is that having her returned to a position that she already has will give her more of a mandate than she got from the massive majority vote for her bill triggering Article 50 a few weeks ago. Arguably though, if she really wanted a mandate, she should have called the election before that point, but that might have given her an answer she didn’t want.
Her expectation now appears to be that the 27 other leaders she’ll be facing in the EU will be quaking in their boots because a few more blue-stockinged retirees in Esher have scrawled a cross next to the name of the local Tory candidate in much the same way as a dog returns to the same lamppost on his nightly sojourns. Or that a misguided ex-Labour, ex-UKIP social climber with an attitude will perform the same feat of self-flagellation in Billericay or Boston.
The truth is of course that the EU don’t give a particular toss about our internal spats. Whatever the size of May’s majority (assuming she wins) it won’t matter one iota to any of them. Neither will it make any difference to what is emerging as her amateurish, misinformed and bonkers approach to the negotiations.
Her embarrassing whinge about the other member nations aligning themselves behind a common strategy really goes to show just how ill-equipped she is to lead us into the post-EU era. Quite what she expected them to do when confronted with the pointlessly bullish stance of her recent Brexit speech is anyone’s guess.
Today, in a move worthy of her new best chum Donald Trump, she’s even accused EU leaders of trying to influence our election result. I fully expect her now to start tweeting at 3am and accusing Jeremy Corbyn of bugging her boudoir. She hasn’t just lost the plot, she’s thrown the book under the bus. Anyone looking at her appearance outside number 10 this afternoon might seriously question just how stable she really is.
As she’s said many times recently, the negotiations will be tough, not least because we have little in the way of real leverage. We’ll need to be properly equipped to deal with people who can bring more to the negotiating table than sound bites and mind numbingly inane slogans.
But that ‘strong and stable’ mantra actually reveals more about May’s personal motivations. From her lips I hear those words as ‘authoritarian and unyielding’. Perhaps great qualities if you fancy being the next leader of North Korea, but not so endearing from a prospective British PM. As Alastair Campbell tweeted this afternoon, there’s more than a touch of the Erdoğan about her behaviour now.
It’s her desire to finally be elected on her own terms that we should all be concerned about. We already know where that ambition will lead for the majority of us. Another Tory win would usher in a de-facto one party state headed by someone who has demonstrated her disdain for the democratic process and her penchant for rule by edict.
Theresa May says she wants a mandate. But her interpretation of that, informed by her own warped internal morality, is that she will have carte blanche for 5 more years to rule by decree unless someone drags her into court time and again to remind her of her democratic responsibilities. Not just over Brexit, but on every other corrosive and destructive policy she and her cabinet choose to impose.
We’re already hearing more rumblings about tax increases and further spending cuts. If May wins in June she’ll wear that result like a suit of armour, no doubt a very expensive designer one, but still one she believes will deflect any criticism of her unilateralism.
It will be nothing less than an existential crisis for a United Kingdom that has already become anything but united in large part due to the internal wranglings of the Conservative Party, allied to a mediocre opportunist who sees this election as her coronation.
If she’s crowned on June 8th that phoney war will pretty soon become a real battle, one where many of us will be little more than cannon fodder or refugees existing in the remains of a country betrayed by its morally bankrupt leaders and our own misguided delusions of grandeur.
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